(in which the Thorns make a romp scary but still get the brass ring)
With a 3-2 win on Sunday, the Thorns locked up a home semi-final match for the first time in four years. One game remains in the season and with the right results elsewhere, the team could also win the league outright for the first time. The sellout crowd of 21,144 was treated to a very entertaining evening with a celebratory ending.
There were many subplots to this story, most notably the return of our previous coach Paul Riley. Some fans were not impressed, as one two-stick said “We Like Our New Dad Better”. Riley’s Achilles’ heel at the Thorns was his disregard for defense and that was his team’s undoing again this night.
The game itself was a tale of two halves. Usually, this would mean that one team dominated for the first 45 minutes and the other for the second half. But this night, Western New York had command of the game for the first 25 minutes and the last twenty, while Portland owned the middle 45 minutes. The Thorns defense in the first segment was stout, their offense in the middle was stellar, and then it nearly fell apart at the end.
The Flash came out in full attack mode. The formation was supposedly a 4-4-2 but for most of the opening 25 minutes they were playing a 2-4-4 while pressing extremely hard and high. The Thorns had no answer, as the team was unable to string together even two forward passes. There was a lot of passing across the back line, but every attempt to go forward was cut out by a Flash player or killed with a poor pass. One attempt was killed by a completely wrong offside call. Here’s a reminder to Assistant Referee McDonald: by rule, a player is not offside on a pass from a defender!
For all their energy expended, the Flash were unable to put a dangerous shot on Betos’ goal. Emily Sonnett and Amandine Henry were primarily responsible for keeping New York off the scoreboard in this stretch.
The Thorns Take Control
It took too long, but eventually the Thorns remembered that you break the high press with long balls behind the attacking midfielders. The very first time Portland tried this, in the 25th minute, it worked. On our first possession in the New York end of the pitch, Nadim took a long ball down and drew a penalty kick in the Flash box. She converted for a 1-0 lead. The penalty call was a harsh one for the Flash as there appeared to be no real foul committed.
With the concession, the Flash began to look a bit fatigued while Portland was energized. The Thorns are a team that loves to score first and then pour it on. Ten minutes later Christine Sinclair scored her third goal of the week with a very nice finish off the inside of Flash keeper D’Angelo’s post.
The Portland barrage continued after the halftime break. Nadim nearly scored and was then subbed off for Hayley Raso in the 60th minute. In the 65th, Lindsey Horan was robbed of a goal by a point-blank save from D’Angelo. Two minutes later, Horan was subbed off for Dagny. Less than two minutes after that the Thorns scored a beauty of a goal to make the scoreline 3-0. The sequence of Menges-to-Long-to-Sinclair-to-Heath-to-Brynjarsdottir may not have the ring of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, but it was just as silky smooth. Four one-touch passes in a row put Dagny in for a controlled yet emphatic shot to the upper corner.
The Flash Come Back
Western New York came to Portland needing a draw to ensure their playoff spot. After conceding three goals, and with three fresh players substituted in, they re-found their determination to go home with that precious point. To their credit, they nearly pulled it off. And they got some help from the Thorns.
Tobin Heath didn’t help the cause when in the 72nd minute and with a 3-0 lead, she decided to do some hot-dogging rather than apply the killing blow. Allie Long is wide open for a pass that would have put her in alone on goal, but Tobin instead tried to beat her defender. The result was a goal kick.
Later, Klingenberg split two defenders to play a beautiful pass out for Heath. Tobin again took on the defense, this time a double-team, rather than lay off the obvious ball to Sinclair. While this ended up a corner kick, the Flash were surely relieved.
In the 77th minute, Elizabeth Eddy put a perfect cross on the head of former Thorn Jessica McDonald for their first goal. McDonald was double-teamed by Sonnett and Reynolds, and Betos was in good position, but there is no stopping perfection. To give an idea of the quality of that Eddy cross, try this experiment at home. Hang a garbage can 6-1/2 feet in the air near your street. Now take your soccer ball two houses down and wait for a car to come. Dribble around the car, take one glance up, and kick the ball into the trash can.
Three minutes later, McDonald provided the service to Lynn Williams for a second Rochester goal. This sequence started with a truly terrible pass from Allie Long. She only made two mistakes in the entire second half, but this was a doozy. Not only was the pass weak, it was a bad idea to pass backwards. Notice that Amandine is open ahead to Allie’s right.
Now the draw seemed within reach for New York. The Thorns seemed to suddenly realize they were in trouble and redoubled their effort to keep the win. The team did a generally good job of controlling possession and earned repeated set pieces for the remaining 14 minutes. In the last minute of stoppage time, Michelle Betos made her best save of the night and the result was secured.
In spite of the draining effort of three games in a week, many Thorns had stellar performances this night. My WOTM was Christine Sinclair. She scored the opportunistic second goal but also played stout defense. Her positive-to-negative touch ratio was 26:2, best on the team. As always, the team seems to just play better with her on the pitch. She projects calmness but also toughness and her teammates seem to thrive on it.
A close second was Amandine Henry. She was often playing as a third central defender, yet also sprung many attacks. Her positive-to-negative ratio was 28:3; in the second half it was 16:0!
Nadia Nadim played a fine game. In her 60 minutes, she drew and converted the penalty, played aggressive defense during the team’s slump at the start of the match, and finished up with a 12:8 touch ratio.
Lindsey Horan also played well with a 15:3 touch ratio, sprung Nadim for the opening goal, and had an excellent turn-and-shoot opportunity. Although she was only out there for 67 minutes, she contributed a game’s worth of effort. Her breakthrough is still coming; the fans can almost sense its imminence.
Other players with “average” outings were Betos (14:7) who could do nothing about the two goals but prevented the crucial third, Klingenberg (14:7) who looked comfortable and energetic, Reynolds (14:6) who was particularly strong fending off the Flash’s opening surge, Dagny (6:1) with a goal moments after stepping on the pitch and then good defending late, and Raso (2:0) the Energizer bunny.
In her postgame interview, Dagny said that the Thorns were a little tired playing their third game in a week. While this is surely the case, the Flash also played three games this week, and had to travel cross-country. This leads me to think that maybe the Flash just wanted it a bit more – they needed the point to qualify for the postseason, the Thorns were already in.
So strange: on the night that Emily Menges received the highest honor in American women’s soccer, the Riveter’s Player of the Year award, she had her worst outing of the season. Beaten for the second Flash goal, Menges had a 7:8 ratio on the night. During the opening 25 minutes, she touched the ball many times but only ever passed it side-to-side. Those balls over the top that coach Parsons wanted weren’t forthcoming. She did start the play for the third goal, and those “routine” side-to-side passes were all done correctly, so it wasn’t totally dire.
Allie Long played a pretty decent match with an 18:7 ratio that was just slightly off her usual standard. However, it was her poor pass that beat her own defense for the second Flash goal. Allie also was off the pace in the first half, not finding the right pass from the back with a 7:5 ratio for the first 45.
Tobin Heath came on strong in the second half after a pretty rotten opening stanza. Her touch ratio was 4:3 in the first but 13:3 in the second. But those two selfish plays in the second half offset much of her other quality. As a coach, I don’t know if Parsons truly minds when Tobin pulls stunts like that – it’s entertaining, it frightens the defenders, it sets up the pass for the next foray. But I’d guess Parsons wasn’t too thrilled about her timing. Yes, the Thorns were up 3-0 the first time, but the Flash had shown their comeback capacity many times this season.
Coach Parsons gets a neutral rating this week – no Newtonian heights quite yet. First, a thumbs up for the substitution of Nadim and Horan. Both of them have 4 yellow cards for the season. One more would have seen them suspended for the last match. At the point he subbed them out, the referee was starting to hand out cards. Nadim in particular looked like she was about due to get one.
But he gets a thumbs down for the team’s strategic preparation. Postgame, Parsons said he knew that New York would come out hard and leave their back exposed (as he put it, “Gaps big enough to fit a cruise ship”). Yet the Thorns had no answer prepared when it happened. Where were the long balls to the corner flag or the chips over the midfield? Twenty minutes late. Portland were fortunate to have survived the early flurry.
You also have to question the team’s ability to see the game out. Perhaps the crowd’s euphoria over the third goal induced some complacency into the Thorns. Consider that we could conceivably have a repeat on October 2 in the semi-final match. The team needs to be ready to play all ninety minutes.
With so much to cover, I’m trying an experiment this week. The Hammered Rivets section is a separate post. Continue to Hammered Rivets – Home Closer Edition.
by Richard Hamje
Video editing by Jeanette “Bitmangler” Hamje